By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Japanese radiation seeps into environment

But not everyone agreed with that assessment.

The watchdog group Food and Water Watch noted, “Radioactive emissions from Japan have been detected throughout the United States, from California to Colorado and as far east as Massachusetts. Monitors in the Carolinas have detected the presence of radioactive iodine, the first time this material had been detected there since the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago.”

It urged the FDA to ban all food and water imports from Japan, and increase monitoring in the U.S.

The EPA’s own monitors found elevated levels of radiation in rainwater, but the agency concluded those were not of concern. Food and Water Watch responded by questioning whether EPA scientists had read the U.S. government’s own stance on radiation.

A 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded there is no safe dose of radiation, that even X-rays pose some risk. That’s a position shared by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the major world body charged with assessing radiation risk.

In part, the elevated levels were dismissed because they were detected in rainwater rather than drinking water. Yet rainwater supplies the drinking water for both McMinnville and Portland, along with a number of other Northwest cities.

In Portland, the level of Iodine 131 in rainwater measured 28 times the federal standard for drinking water. In Olympia, it measured 41 times.

Other radioactive substances also were found at high levels.

In Boise, which is well inland, Cesium-134 level was found at 14 times the standard. Timely tests weren’t run in Oregon and Washington, but levels were surely higher, according to Gerry Pollet, executive director of environmental group Heart of America Northwest.

The EPA said radiation was unlikely to accumulate in people in significant amounts.

But in 2006, the U.S. National Research Council’s Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation concluded even low doses of radiation can cause cancer and some degenerative diseases.

In April 2011, the watchdog group Physicians for Social Responsibility noted that it is the consensus of the medical and scientific community that there is no safe level for radiation, including naturally occurring background radiation.

The group noted, “As the crisis in Japan goes on, there are an increasing number of sources reporting that 100 milliSieverts (mSv) is the lowest dose at which a person is at risk for cancer.” But it said, “Established research disproves this claim.”

Harm increases when larger numbers of people are exposed.

“While the risk of low dose exposure may be very low for a given individual, when large numbers of people are exposed, there are health consequences,” according to the BEIR committee. It says a dose that would create a one-in-a-thousand chance of cancer in an individual, if delivered to 1,000 people, would result in one case of cancer.

Therefore, it states, “If a million people are exposed, one thousand of them will get cancer. While the dose of radiation in a glass of drinking water may be so low that any one person does not need to take specific protective measures, the cumulative impact on the whole community may be very significant.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oregon’s 2011 estimated population was 3.8 million. The population of the United States was 311.5 million.

In a March 2011 report intended to educate the American public about potential risks from Fukushima-linked radiation, the Physicians For Social Responsibility explained why officials sometimes claim no degree of harm. “Assertions that a certain exposure is ‘not harmful to the public,’ are, to be blunt, incorrect,” it said.

The report also noted, “Regulatory standards are basically government determinations of how much harm the public is willing to tolerate from some sort of hazard … Except in rare examples, regulatory standards reflect complex trade-offs between the kinds of harm we want to avoid (e.g. additional cancers in a population), economic costs, and our values about what is important.” It concluded, “When a public official says the public is safe, or that there are not risks, they are saying that in comparison to other things that threaten public health, such as air pollution, smoking, etc.”

Many of the current recommendations about radiation-risk from low-dose exposure derived studies of survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Some scientists contend this has led to inaccurate conclusions.

In a 2010 report on the harmful effects caused by radioactive releases from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the European Committee on Radiation Risk concluded it was unsafe to use studies about high external exposure to radiation to make predictions about the effects of low dose, chronic internal exposure to radiation in food and water. It says its methodology is based on real-world studies, many of them on the effects on various populations of the radiation released by the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in the Ukraine.

In a March 2011 press release, Dr. Alan Lockwood of Physicians For Social Responsibility argued, “Consuming food containing radionuclides is particularly dangerous. If an individual ingests or inhales a radioactive particle, it continues to irradiate the body as long as it remains radioactive and stays in the body.”

Lockwood was lobbying for better protection of Japanese citizens from contaminated food, but also argued, “The FDA and EPA must enforce existing regulations and guidelines that address radionuclide content in our food supply here at home.”

Oregon State University said researchers reported finding traces of radioactive cesium released from the Fukushima plant in Northwest albacore tuna. And researchers from California had announced they had found “traces of Fukushima-linked radionuclides” in bluefin tuna caught off the California coast.

That served to underscore the food contamination concern.

In a press release, the California group noted, “The bluefin news came as a surprise to the scientific and regulatory community. Shortly after the March 2011 Japanese tsunami and reactor disaster, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and NOAA jointly expressed ‘high confidence’ in the safety of U.S. seafood products.

But the OSU researchers downplayed their discovery, saying, “The radiation levels in fish analyzed to date are far below anything that would pose a risk to humans who consume the fish. The findings are preliminary; additional fish remain to be tested.”

In April 2011, science writer Elizabeth Grossman noted the world had never seen a release as massive as that in Japan, where thousands of tons of contaminated water have poured into the ocean.

“Studies from previous releases of nuclear material in the Irish, Kara and Barents Seas, as well as in the Pacific Ocean, show that such radioactive material does travel with ocean currents, is deposited in marine sediment, and does climb the marine food web,” Grossman wrote. “A study published in 2003 found that a substantial part of the world’s radioactive contamination is in the marine environment. But what impact this radioactive contamination has on marine life and humans is still unclear.”

Food & Water Watch notes on its website, “The United States imports around 80 percent of its seafood, as well as an increasing share of its fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the FDA inspects less than 2 percent of these imports.”

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